POSTED ON AUGUST 11, 2010:
Two Left Feet
Oklahoma politicians will dance around the issue at heart -- no matter how good it actually is
You can bet Oklahoma's political leaders will be performing the two-step with special zest in the coming days, courtesy of a new round of federal stimulus spending expected to provide a $300 million-or-so boost to the state's sagging bottom line.
Step 1: Rejoicing ... in private.
Although some in the Republican majority would prefer to obliterate government, most in leadership recognize that the public values state services, well delivered. It's a godsend that some 2,000 teachers won't be losing their jobs, after all, and that Medicaid (health care for the poor) will receive a $190 million boost.
Step 2: Ridiculing ... in public.
Legislative leaders, and GOP gubernatorial nominee Mary Fallin, undoubtedly will view the stimulus as an extraordinary election-year gift -- the perfect foil for stoking anti-federal government fervor in the reddest of red states in order to maximize Republican turnout in November.
We've seen this cynical routine before, of course. Remember how GOP legislative leaders publicly denounced the first stimulus package last year, even threatening not to accept so vile a handout?
Miraculously, when the extent of the state's budget crisis became clear, the anti-stimulus fever broke. The Legislature not only took the money, it wisely saved $539 million of it to help plug a $1.2 billion hole in the 2010-11 budget that began July 1.
That won't stop the self-styled super-patriots from railing against it this fall, hoping to convince enough voters that it is yet another sign of creeping socialism, dreamed up by a socialist president, approved by a socialist Congress. Man the barricades -- it's time to take our country back!
In fact, the political posturing already is underway.
Fallin, who currently represents the state's 5th Congressional District, told The Oklahoman last week she opposed the latest stimulus package -- though she wouldn't be returning to Washington to vote on the measure.
Fallin would no doubt argue her position is a matter of principle, but there's a political calculus at work here, too: She's in a three-month sprint to the general election, battling Democrat Jari Askins to become Oklahoma's next governor -- the state's first female chief executive.
Every hour Fallin spends on a plane to and from Washington, or milling around the Capitol waiting to cast her no vote, is an hour she can't devote to retail politics, shaking hands, kissing babies and wooing undecided voters.
Moreover, Fallin probably has calculated it is good politics in Oklahoma to thumb her nose at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- a San Francisco liberal! -- by refusing to be summoned back to Washington during the August recess to vote on the measure.
"Sadly," she said, "the fact of the matter is that the liberal leadership in the House has the votes to ram this measure down our throats regardless of my opposition and the opposition of other conservatives in Congress.
"With that in mind, I believe the best way I can fight these kind of big spending policies is to ensure that Oklahoma's next governor will stand up to Washington and commit themselves to fiscal discipline. That's why I am staying here in Oklahoma next week and continuing to talk to voters about my campaign and my mission: to restore principled, conservative leadership to the governor's office."
Outgoing Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, a wild-eyed liberal? Who knew? I'm not quite sure how Henry's signing of bills that slashed state income taxes $770 million -- most for the wealthiest Oklahomans -- is wild-eyed liberalism, but maybe Fallin is farther right than anyone knew.
Or maybe she assumes -- just like the GOP legislative leaders who've proven all too happy to take the stimulus money with one hand and attack it with the other -- that anti-federal government buzzwords are enough to win the hearts of most Oklahomans who only casually follow politics.
Here's an uncomfortable reality for those who mock the federal help coming Oklahoma's way: Despite all the yammering about saddling future generations with crushing debt, America's debt as a percentage of its Gross National Product is among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the industrial world.
Of course, many of these debt-obsessed folks are the same ones who contend that if you cut taxes, you increase tax revenues -- a preposterous claim that George H.W. Bush derided as "voodoo economics."
The Tea Partiers and anti-Obama crowd don't want to hear it, but there is hard evidence to suggest too little has been spent -- not too much -- to help the U.S. and world escape the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
For Oklahoma, specifically, another round of stimulus not only keeps about 2,000 teachers working, paying taxes and buying groceries, but it also helps stabilize a shaky recovery and thwart another economic downturn.
Further, it keeps more and more students from being jammed into larger and larger classes -- a recipe for education disaster.
In addition, the $190 million for Medicaid will come in especially handy if the state Supreme Court rules that a legislatively-approved 1 percent fee on health care claims is really an illegally imposed tax.
State Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland thinks it is. She contends the Legislature not only violated a ban on enacting revenue-raising measures in the session's final five days, but also a requirement that new taxes cannot be imposed without three-fourths support of both houses or voter approval in a statewide election.
The Legislature approved the fee, set to take effect later this month, as a means to take advantage of a federal matching funds program for Medicaid. The state-imposed provider fee was projected to raise $78 million a year --which would yield $190 million in federal matching funds.
An excellent return on investment, no doubt, but possibly illegal. Without the stimulus money, Oklahoma could be looking at another crisis if the health care claims fee is tossed out.
The stimulus really is good news for Oklahoma. Too bad the two-stepping pols don't have the courage to acknowledge it.
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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